Truth, Claret, and Women

News about the British philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton.

From his 2010 oenophile’s memoir I Drink Therefore I Am, here’s a delightful anecdote from philosopher Sir Roger Scruton about Monsignor Alfred Newman Gilbey, Catholic chaplain from 1932-1965 at Fisher House, University of Cambridge. Scruton visited Ave Maria University two years ago, as Distinguished Visiting Scholar, to offer a three-part lecture on topics ranging from the philosophy of neurobiology to music (Wagner, of course). During his stay, he also visited the AMU student wine society, In Vino Sanitas.

‘Although the Monsignor was a priest of Bacchus, he was also an apostle of Christ and a devotee of order in all its forms. He spent less time seated at his special table than kneeling in his private chapel (both situated, as it happens, in the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall). Convinced that it is in the nature of truth to give offence, he lived in a small, charmed circle of recusants, secure in the belief that ‘in my Father’s house there are many mansions’, so that death would not, after all, be a social disaster.

Two sounds above all, he remarked, attach us to this vale of tears: the cry of beagles on a lively scent, and the pop of claret from the bottle. He was as unmusical as he was politically incorrect; but he was right about claret. The shape of the bottle combines with the texture of the wine to produce a sibilant bubbling, somewhere between a murmur and a kiss. Maybe this justifies claret’s otherwise peculiar English name (applied to the wines of Gascony when Gascony was the merrier part of England, and when it was only the light red clairet that was shipped).

Gilbey held that claret is to be drunk for preference after a meal. The wine should fall onto a full stomach, and rise again as discourse. This idea originates in the symposium of the Greeks, to whom we owe the proverb oinos kai aletheia, wine and truth, which became in vino veritas when the Romans took over. Claret still has this aura for me, of a wine to be not swilled but meditated, and always in good company – which does not, of course, preclude drinking it alone, if your company reaches the required standard (which, after a glass or two, I find, mine does).’

On Msgr. Gilbey’s famed political incorrectness, I have my own account, having lived and married in Cambridge several years ago. To this day, it seems Gilbey is known for having asserted that women would be admitted to Fisher House ‘over [his] dead body’. Indeed, I lived at the Margaret Beaufort House on Grange Road, which during Gilbey’s time was serviced as chaplaincy exclusively for the aforementioned inadmissibles. Upon Gilbey’s death, however, his body was buried in the courtyard of Fisher House, in a threshold area where men and women now freely traverse. The chaplaincy space has been beautifully renovated, and I often used it for its skylit library during my PhD studies; it was also the location for our first wedding dance after a garden reception and dinner at Christ College.