Drink - Victoria Moore on cocktails and speed-dating

Drink - Over cocktails, my friend reveals all about her speed-dating

Carrie Bradshaw, of Sex and the City, once said: "A date is not a date without cocktails." I don't think she would ever claim the converse - that a cocktail is not a cocktail without a date. How could it be, when girls drinking cocktails together are the excuse for analysis usually more amusing than the date itself? Example: "Guess what Elizabeth did while her date was in the shower the next morning?" crowed a friend recently over Negronis at the Ritz's beautiful Rivoli Bar. "Called him a cab home."

Tonight, I have a date with an Armagnac cocktail and two girls, one of whom, I must confess, has links with the Gascon brandy. We start with champagne. As it happens the other girl, Diane, has recently been speed-dating. That is, one room, a lot of cheap wine, thirty men with coded identities and three minutes with each man. I am curious to know two things: what did she talk to them about and will she be seeing any of them again? Diane says the conversations tended to get wilder as the night - and her patience - wore on. "I pretended to like playing Dungeons and Dragons just to provoke a reaction. One man, a banker, responded with genuine enthusiasm."

We take a few moments to absorb this information. The cocktails arrive. It's a little bit unusual to use Armagnac rather than cognac in cocktails. Barmen usually say they prefer cognac as a mixer because it's softer and smoother, so blends into the other ingredients in a much rounder way. Detractors say cognac has a sweetness bordering on soapy and that Armagnac, with its fire and individuality, is always to be preferred, whatever the drink. In fact, Gascons like to remind visitors that their brandy has all the qualities of the local who reputedly introduced it to Parisian society - the swashbuckling musketeer D'Artagnan.

The drinks sparkle in champagne flutes, a mixture of Armagnac (one part) and orange liqueur (one part) topped up with champagne (six parts) and a sliver of orange zest. It's a take on a Pousse-Rapiere - literally, rapier thrust - traditionally drunk as an aperitif. Later I try making it at home with both cognac and Armagnac. It works better with Armagnac. Diane says next week that she has rendezvous with three of her speed-daters,"Gawain the Green Knight, Martin Scorsese and James Bond". I ask what their real names are. Diane doesn't know. We drink. We eat olives. The cocktails are deliciously light and dry but - oh, the alcohol. We realise we have drunk too much and it seems sensible to dilute the cocktails with champagne. Perhaps, I venture, Gawain the Green Knight should be avoided in case he also has a Dungeons and Dragons fixation. Diane looks appalled. "They don't choose their own pseudonyms." That's something to be grateful for, I suppose.

This article first appeared in the 10 February 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Stop: wrong PM on the line

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.