Vine art: an illustration from Les Ignorants, by Étienne Davodeau.
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In the beginning, supposedly, was the word

But surely the grape arrived first?

In the beginning, supposedly, was the word; but surely the grape arrived first. Words, in my creation myth, appeared when harvest time came round and the winemaker realised he needed help to get the grapes in, but it’s probably a good thing they did, because what is a glass of wine without a conversation to accompany it?

Wine needs no translation – but then translation, rather like wine, can bring lucidity or muddle, depending on how you approach it. The Japanese, according to David Bellos’s wonderful book Is That A Fish in Your Ear?, have around 20 words for it, including one used for popular novels of the Danielle Steel variety, which means “translations that are even better than the originals”.

That word won’t be needed for Les Ignorants, by Étienne Davodeau, a charmingly odd graphic novel. Davodeau and his old friend, the Loire winemaker Richard Leroy, spend a year enlightening the other about their respective professions. Wine, so often the producer of mental fog, becomes instead an agent of clarity; the two men, to say nothing of Davodeau’s readers, learn a great deal about the painstaking processes that make a comic book or a bottle.

Whether you’re interested in wine, graphic novels or neither, it is hard not to warm to a book that has a chapter entitled “In praise of cowpats”. Étienne tries a lot of good wine and learns a great deal about the purist philosophy known as biodynamics, including more about sulphur than anyone except a biodynamic winemaker could reasonably wish to know. (Sulphur stabilises wine, which is particularly important when transferring it from barrel to bottle: biodynamic winemakers endlessly debate the advisability of adding even this.)

In return, Leroy visits editors, exhibitions and graphic-novel festivals; he even sits in on an editorial meeting (first question from this maker, and generous sharer, of white wines: “I presume you have a fridge?”).

He also reads his way through a library prescribed by his friend. The two visit novelists and winemakers; the conversation, as befits a book on wine, is rich, sophisticated and spiced with gentle mockery. The wine man can pinpoint a producer just by sniffing the contents of his glass, but he keeps forgetting the names of the books he’s read; after the first few bottles are opened, the writer’s tastebuds go on strike.

So it’s particularly irritating to learn that Les Ignorants, a book about ignorance and the joys of lessening it, has been translated not as The Ignoramuses (or even, Ignorami) but as The Initiates. Why? It’s an awful management-speak word; it puts me in mind of a 1934 New Yorker story by James Thurber, in which that great comic writer superciliously explains that the phrase mise du château on wine bottles means “mice in the chateau” and is intended to show that said chateau is authentically old, so makes good wine.

The phrase “is extremely simple,” he says repressively, “and it is astonishing how many Americans are puzzled by it.” The phrase is doggerel: a mouse in French is une souris, and even French “mises” are less than fussy about the vintage of their accommodation. Thurber was patronising the wine snobs – what the French call les buveurs d’etiquettes, (label drinkers): the people who care only about the words on the bottle rather than what’s inside it.

Words should enhance wine, and vice versa: if you want a creed, there’s mine. And not mine alone: at Drink and Draw, on 1 June, part of the Institut Français graphic novel festival, Davodeau will discuss wine and drawing while the wine writer Tim Atkin talks about wine and serves it, too, thus proving that even experiences that require no words do really, because what is a wordless experience if we don’t talk about it afterwards?

The books and the booze come out of Les Ignorants neck and neck (or should that be neck and spine?), whichever started first; but then again, it was never a race.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State