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A J A Symons - The Society's Other Founder
If you were asked to name the founder of the International Wine & Food Society, you would probably answer without hesitation that it was André Simon, whose memory still dominates the organization 34 years after his death. But in truth the IWFS had two founders, and in the early days of the Wine & Food Society (as it then was) they operated as a genuine partnership.
André Simon, then aged 23, married Edith Symons in 1900. In the same year, Alphonse James Albert Symons was born, the eldest of five children of an English mother and a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, about whose origins little is known except that his name was not originally Symons. AJA and Edith were not related, but in view of later events the coincidence of surnames was a strange one. Not unnaturally, Alphonse disliked his first name, preferring to be called “AJ”, after AJ Raffles, the fictional cricketer and gentleman burglar created by EW Hornung, the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
If he had not been involved in the founding of the Society, AJ would still occupy a minor place in the pantheon of English literature. Today, he is remembered for just one book, The Quest for Corvo, published in 1934 and still in print. Baron Corvo was the pseudonym of the strange figure of Frederick Rolfe, whose best-known work, Hadrian the Seventh, is a fantasy based on its author’s failure to become a Roman Catholic priest.
The word “dilettante” might have been coined to describe AJ, who was a dandy, bibliophile, calligrapher, gambler, and compulsive collector of such items as musical boxes and Victorian card cases. His father was an auctioneer, whose brief period of prosperity came to an abrupt halt in 1921. AJ, who left school at 14, and served a three-year apprenticeship to a firm of fur traders (a period he subsequently likened to Dickens’ time working in a blacking factory) went on to assist his father, but when the auction rooms had to be sold AJ needed to find new employment.
The tall and elegant young man went on to start the First Edition Club. He had a series of financial backers, who at one time included the Foyle brothers, owners of the famous bookshop in Charing Cross Road. For a time, the Club operated from Vestry Hall at the Church of St George, Bloomsbury, in Little Russell Street near the British Museum.
Early in 1924, Symons married Gladys Weeks. AJ was an inveterate founder and joiner of clubs and societies, and in his mid twenties he found himself a member of a distinguished dining club called Ye Sette of Odd Volumes. There he met Maurice Healy, the Irish barrister and author of Stay Me with Flagons, one of the greatest of all wine books. Healy in turn introduced the young bibliophile to André Simon, by that time a successful wine merchant, author and acknowledged expert on gastronomy.
In the meantime AJ achieved his ambition of turning the First Edition Club into a limited company, and moved to grand new premises at 17 Bedford Square, with a flat for the Secretary, in the heart of literary London. With a typical Symons flourish, the new premises were opened in May 1928 by ex-king Manoel of Portugal. The Club spawned a magazine called The Book-Collector’s Quarterly, which was a joint venture with the publishing house of Cassell.
Symons’ self-composed epitaph was that “No one so poor has lived so well.”
It is unlikely that the First Edition Club, which never achieved its target of 600 members needed to break even, would ever have been a financial success. However, its decline was accelerated by the Depression, which began in the USA in 1929. The limited company was wound up, involving significant losses to its backers, one of whom was André Simon. Such was AJ’s charm, however, that this setback resulted in the loss of few friends, and he remained on good terms with many of the foremost writers of his day.
At this stage in his career, AJ turned his hand to biography. His first attempt, a life of the explorer HM Stanley, was little more than a potboiler, but he had become interested in Frederick Rolfe as a result of being lent a collection of his letters, written from Venice in the “weird baron’s” last years. The Quest for Corvo is a highly original tour de force, in which the detective work involved in tracking down its subject is skilfully interwoven with the biography itself.
The precursor of the Wine & Food Society was the Saintsbury Club, whose origins have been frequently chronicled. It started with a lunch that included AJ, André Simon, Maurice Healy and the poet and critic JC (later Sir John) Squire. At the lunch, Squire lamented the reduced circumstances of Professor George Saintsbury, author of the classic Notes on a Cellar Book, then living in retirement in Bath. It was agreed to give him a dinner. The founders of the Saintsbury Club were undaunted by the old professor’s refusal to have anything to do with them. AJ became the Secretary, and the first dinner was held on October 23, 1931. The Saintsbury Club still flourishes today.
The financial depression of the early Thirties had already resulted in a severe setback for AJ. Soon afterwards André Simon also suffered from its ramifications, in his case partly because of the collapse of sterling against the French franc. On November 30, 1932, André lost his job as sole UK agent for Pommery Champagne after more than 30 years’ service.
Like Symons, André had to look for a change of career. He had long cherished the idea of starting a wine magazine, and sought the advice of one of his many acquaintances, JL Garvin, Editor of The Observer. Garvin could see that, in those uncertain times, such a magazine was unlikely to be profitable in its own right. Instead, he suggested the idea of a society, on the lines of the First Edition Club, whose members would pay a subscription and receive a magazine as one of the benefits of membership.
The First Edition Club still existed in a much reduced form, although it had given up its grand premises in Bedford Square and returned to Little Russell Street. André invited AJ to lunch, and the eventual result of their meeting was the founding of the Wine & Food Society on October 20, 1933, with André Simon as its President and AJA Symons as its Secretary. Thus the Society’s first premises were also those of the First Edition Club. Within a month the Wine & Food Society had 230 members, and 1000 within a year.
The Society’s Journal, originally Wine and Food, first appeared in 1934. André acted as Editor, with AJ responsible for production and advertising as well as writing occasional articles. Following the repeal of Prohibition immediately after the foundation of the Society, the partners decided that André should visit the USA as a kind of gastronomic recruiting sergeant. During his absence, AJ was left in sole control of the Society, which now took up almost all of his time. The lists of guests at the dinners of this period read somewhat like a Who’s Who of the era.
Most of the remainder of the Thirties was on the whole a good time for AJ. He had already rented a fine Georgian house in Finchingfield, Essex, which was his weekend retreat. His revived finances enabled him to indulge his taste for expensive suits (made by the Prince of Wales’ tailor). He dined out almost every night and during the week his wife saw little of him. This was a contributory factor in their divorce in 1936. But there were those who regretted that he had not shown greater single-mindedness in pursuing the literary career that had begun with such promise.
AJ was an enthusiastic walker (an attempt to take up sailing had been an unmitigated disaster). Fortunately, he has left us an account of a walking holiday, entitled “Walking in Wessex”, in issue No. 14 of Wine and Food (1937). This beautifully-written period piece describes a journey with two friends from Whitsbury Down near Salisbury to the coast at Weymouth, and then on to Lyme Regis and Seaton. They stayed in inns and lunched in picturesquely-named villages such as Tollard Royal and Tarrant Gunville. AJ’s account concludes, “We had travelled in the best of all ways, on foot, through a hundred miles of English countryside, and found it unexpectedly unspoiled. We had left our entertainment to chance, and been richly rewarded.… As the train bore us back from the happy holiday scene I made a vow which I now discharge, to offer thanks to the gastronomic angels that had smiled upon our path.”
In 1939, the Second World War broke out. Food rationing began, and Symons published The Unration Book, a parody of an official publication. Suddenly, in November, he was taken seriously ill. It appeared at first that he had had a stroke. He retired to Finchingfield in the hope of recovery. André Simon, meanwhile, had to take on the whole of the day-to-day running of the Society. Unaware of the seriousness of his partner’s illness, he resented the fact that AJ was no longer pulling his weight. AJ rallied briefly, but died of a brain haemorrhage on August 26, 1941.
“We who knew him best mourn him most,” wrote André Simon, “but he will be greatly missed by all. His place can never be filled: there will never be anyone like him.” The Society was not, entirely, “André’s wonderful invention”, but instead the result of a collaboration between two brilliant but very different individuals. Without AJA Symons, it is possible that the International Wine & Food Society would never have been founded, or if it had, it might have taken a very different form. Today’s members of the IWFS, to whom he has passed the torch, owe it to the Society’s other founder that his memory is not forgotten.
Asparagus and the Art of Good Living:
Remembering Edward Heron-Allen, F.R.S. (1861-1943)
“They Travelled 100 Miles to Eat Asparagus”
The Nottingham Journal, 23 May 1938
In May of 1938, the Wine and Food Society caused quite a stir: members marked the start of the British asparagus season by celebrating in style. As The Nottingham Journal reports, they travelled to the Vale of Evesham, where most of the English asparagus was grown. Many members took a train from London and reached the Lygon Arms, Broadway, on the 22nd of May, in time to eat a luncheon of asparagus cut the same morning from the Vale.
This press report, carefully preserved by A.J.A. Symons in his volumes of Wine and Food Society Memorabilia, describes the event in vivid terms:
Epicures travelled over 100 miles to-day to eat an asparagus lunch in the picturesque little village of Broadway in the Cotswolds. They were members of the Wine and Food Society celebrating the opening -- a fortnight late -- of the British asparagus season, a festivity of such gastronomic importance that an overflow lunch has had to be arranged for to-morrow. Again most of the visitors will come from London.
Asparagus was introduced into four courses of the menu. Guests started with cream of asparagus soup. Fillets of lemon sole were served with asparagus tips. There followed cold meats with asparagus salad and then came. . . just asparagus.
The meal was followed by AndrÈ Simon, President of the Society, providing asparagus “tips” of an oratorical kind. One tip was: “Do not, as so many English cooks are tempted to do, boil and boil it until it is soft at the end and the tips resemble wet blotting paper. Follow the Roman practice and consider it cooked when the tips are soft.”
By May 1938, asparagus was a subject familiar to the members of the Wine and Food Society. Four years before this outpouring of interest, a man named Edward Heron-Allen had laid the groundwork for such appreciation. While he had publications addressing asparagus culture which appeared in such places as The Southern Post, The Chichester Post, and a pamphlet called Asparagus as a Hobby for Amateurs and Epicures, it was his article, “Asparagus: Its History, Cultivation and Cookery”, published in the Summer 1934 issue of the Society’s Journal Wine and Food, which gained Heron-Allen his widest and most appreciative audience.
What the members of the Wine and Food Society experienced at the Vale was precisely what Heron-Allen prescribed and envisioned for the future: the finest asparagus, eaten at its freshest. In other words, here were people with a zest for life.
Edward Heron-Allen, F.R.S. (1861-1943) was a man of means who practised as a solicitor in Soho, London, until he retired from the law on his fiftieth birthday. Known for his idiosyncrasy of never wearing a colour of any kind, he nonetheless lived a kaleidoscopic life. Heron-Allen made significant contributions to many diverse subjects. Who’s Who documents his wide-ranging scholarly pursuits: “Persian Literature; Marine Zoology; Meteorology; Heraldry; Bibliography; Occasional Essays and Scientific Romances; Auricula and Asparagus Culture”.† He published books on these subjects and many others, including violin-making, palmistry, Buddhism, the Egyptian Nefer sign, a purple sapphire (written under the pseudonym of Christopher Blayre), and a cheetah girl (privately printed). He was an early champion of the Boy Scout Movement, and during World War I was known as “The Black Commissioner”. He even received special permission from Chief Scout, General Baden-Powell, to wear black, from hat to puttees. Heron-Allen joined the Staff of the War Office, in the Department of the Ministry of Intelligence (MI7) in May 1918, where he dealt specifically with the publication of propaganda. In 1919, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society for his work on Foraminifera (microscopic marine organisms).
Although he was born in London, owned property there, and remained closely connected with his family firm of Allen and Son, a firm of solicitors in Soho which was well-known for nearly two centuries, Heron-Allen spent most of his adult life at “Large Acres”, his estate in Selsey, Sussex, near the southernmost tip of England, which he bought, designed and built, starting in 1906.
It was here that Heron-Allen devoted seventeen years to experiments with asparagus culture, creating a variety he named “The Selsey Giant”. In his pamphlet entitled Asparagus as a Hobby for Amateurs and Epicures (1934), he states that the reputation of The Selsey Giant “has spread far and wide, and so many have been the applications that I have received for seeds, that I have been compelled to hand the distribution over to Messrs. Sutton’s (of Reading), to whom I now refer my applicants” (p. 3). It was also in Selsey where Heron-Allen enjoyed entertaining a veritable Who’s Who of friends, of which at least two contributed to the foundation of the Wine and Food Society.
Throughout his life, Heron-Allen enjoyed a charmed circle of friends. He was a friend to Oscar and Constance Wilde and their two sons. In 1885 he cast the horoscope of their first son, Cyril Wilde, and by 1924 Heron-Allen was a mentor and generous host to their youngest son, Vyvyan Holland, who had his last name changed because of the family tragedy and public scandal.
It appears that it was through Wilde’s youngest son that Heron-Allen first met A.J. As Julian Symons records in his biography of his brother:
One day in the last month of 1922 a young man named Vyvyan Holland was walking along Pall Mall. It was his habit to walk along the street staring firmly at the ground; but when about to turn from Pall Mall East into Lower Regent Street, he departed from this custom so far as to look up at the first floor windows on the opposite side of the road. He saw there, written upon a large signboard, and also painted across two windows, the words THE FIRST EDITION CLUB.
A.J.A Symons: His Life and Speculations, p. 1
The sign caught his attention, and Holland, a keen collector of first editions, fine wine, paperweights and other rarities, crossed the street, entered the building, and walked upstairs. When a door opened, he saw the unexpected: not the elderly, untidy and bearded figure he imagined he would find, but a tall, svelte young man, wearing a lavender-coloured suit of an advanced cut.
The die was cast. The First Edition Club brought together like-minded bibliophiles and provided an entrÈe to other societies. One such society was Ye Sette of Odd Volumes, an exclusive dining and literary society founded by the antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch in 1878. Heron-Allen, known to the Odd Volumes Brotherhood as Necromancer, had strong connections, having joined in 1883, resigned some years later, and rejoined in 1924. Two years after Heron-Allen had returned, two new members were inducted -- Idler(Vyvyan Holland) and Speculator (A.J.A. Symons). Vintner(AndrÈ Simon) was not far behind, joining in 1931.
The Odd Volumes met once a month, and they presented learned papers, ranging from science to the arts, some of which were published as finely bound “opuscula” available only to members of the society. Their meals were memorable, and today their menus, illustrated and printed on the finest paper, are collectors’ items.
In his remembrances, Vyvyan Holland states that it was through the Odd Volumes that A.J. first met AndrÈ Simon. Here friendships, societies and books blossomed. As Holland notes, “Out of A.J.’s friendship with AndrÈ Simon grew the Wine and Food Society and the Saintsbury Club. Both of these institutions owed their success very largely to A.J.’s energy and personality, though the original idea for both came from AndrÈ Simon”. Furthermore, it was there, at the meetings of the Odd Volumes, “that the foundations of his now famous bibliographical study The Quest for Corvo were laid” (An Evergreen Garland, p. 129). A.J.’s contribution was a short paper entitled Frederick, Baron Corvo, and it was read in October 1926. It was a highly-prized opuscula, and the seed had been planted for what would become, eight years later, A.J.’s masterpiece.
Holland also recalls his bond with Heron-Allen. “What attracted me most to Heron-Allen was his love of collecting things. Apart from his collections of books, which interested him most, he also collected old English silver, glass, china, musical instruments, seals, walking sticks, precious stones and stamps. Within my means, I too have always been an incurable collector” (Time Remembered: After PËre Lachaise, p. 132).
A.J. shared the same incurable urge for collecting. He collected fascinating friends as well as first editions, music boxes, Victorian card cases, and more. In Heron-Allen’s “Large Acres” guest book, beautifully bound in soft leather and secured by sterling silver clasps, one page is filled with photographs of and an inscription by A.J. The date is 15-18 March 1929, and the following, in A.J.’s finest calligraphic hand, shows a shared love of curios, literature and laughter:
On Mr. Heron-Allen declaring that
The antique dealers of Chichester sold fakes
Only, having, like other antique dealers in
Other cathedral cities, been corrupted by the
A Chichester merchant of curios
Once made Heron-Allen quite furiouse
By shouting out “Hop
To hell from my shop
My goods are all genuine, not spuriose.”
In addition to these wry comments, this visitors’ book contains many remarks about memorable meals, including fresh lobsters from Selsey. It was too early in the season for A.J. to have tasted and recorded his impressions of Heron-Allen’s experiments with asparagus. However, by the Summer of 1934 these experiments would be reported by Heron-Allen himself in Wine and Food, where, besides calling for the finest variety, he insisted upon classic cookery, noting that “the sooner the stalks are cooked after being cut the better”.
In May 1938, when epicures from the Wine and Food Society travelled 100 miles to eat asparagus cut the same morning, similar suggestions emerged. This was a celebration of the art of good living, and it was in keeping with the spirit of the ground-breaking work of the co-founders, their co-conspirators and, alone among them, the man in black -- Edward Heron-Allen, F.R.S, Sometime Necromancer and sower of seeds.
For more information on Edward Heron-Allen, please see the Heron-Allen Society: www.heron-allen.co.uk
I would like to thank Ivor E Jones, grandson of Edward Heron-Allen, for allowing me to quote from the “Large Acres” visitors’ book and for permission to print the photographs of Heron-Allen and AJA Symons.†I am also grateful to the staff of the International Secretariat of the IWFS for access to the AJA Symons volumes of memorabilia.
Dr Joan Navarre is writing the first biography of Edward Heron-Allen, FRS. †She has taught Composition and lectured in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette University, and Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, USA. †Her special field of interest is Oscar Wilde and the 1890s.
Working with André - by Hugh Johnson OBE
I was 22 when we first met; André only 84. His name was already a legend to me: I had joined the Cambridge University Wine & Food Society as an undergraduate. His presidential presence loomed behind our activities. And active we were - London's finest wine merchants made regular visits to indoctrinate their future customers. The annual Varsity tasting match celebrated its 50th year in 2002.
Nor were we raised on a strict diet of the classics. In 1959 we had our introduction to the wines of California - remarkably avant-garde in those days. California was already my El Dorado; I had spent the summer there, aged 18, and I knew I would be going back.
But in 1961 I was a very junior hack at Condé Nast Publications when I was sent to interview the great André in his office in Grosvenor Gardens. I remember my first impression clearly. He sat with his back to the window, the sunlight making a halo of his curly white hair. His hand was huge; his accent as studied as Maurice Chevalier's, his figures of speech and choice of phrases deliciously oblique. He was fond, whether speaking or writing, of parables. I can't remember by which parable he let me know that I could be useful to him.
André had been carrying the Society on his broad shoulders for a long time. During the Depression he had achieved miracles of morale-boosting gastronomy, holding dinners at the Café Royal which showed how good "fare", as he called it, need not be expensive. Through his friendship with Oliver Simon of the Curwen Press, high-quality printers hidden down in Plaistow near the Docks, he had even found paper to keep his quarterly Wine & Food going throughout the war.
At 84 he was looking cautiously around, I suspect, for the means to assure that his Society survived him. He also had wanderlust; he wanted to see the world rather than sit in an office. One of the means of release in sight was Condé Nast, whose chairman, Harry Yoxall, had started the English edition of Vogue and was a discriminating lover of Burgundy. I never heard them discussing me, but I am sure Yoxall must have said "I'll let you have young Johnson", or words to that effect.
Another thought, which certainly never occurred to me at the time: André had started his career in what used to be called Grub Street during his French military service, aged 20, as subeditor of the Revue de l'Artillerie. Did he perhaps see in this fresh-faced Englishman an echo of his own start? Or even a means of revenge?
Whatever he thought, I found my duties as a copywriter on Vogue, and subsequently House & Garden too, increasingly steered towards wine, and specifically the Wine & Food Society. I wish I could find my diary for 1962. The 1963 one is pretty laconic, but increasingly includes meetings with André and lunches with Madeleine Heard, the Society's formidable matronly Secretary, often at Verrey's, a robustly old-school French restaurant at Oxford Circus.
My copy of the Winter 1962 number Wine & Food reveals (I scribbled all over it) my deeper involvement. In the Spring 1963 number I am named as Editor, André as Editor in Chief and Harry Yoxall as Consultant. It was the first ever to have illustrations (they were line engravings I scrounged where I could). And it included its first article by Elizabeth David, whom, my diary reminds me, I took to lunch at the United University Club in Pall Mall (whatever did she make of that?) on André's 86th birthday, February 28.
That was quite a day. In the afternoon I went to the Sunday Times to see another famously formidable lady, Ernestine Carter, to begin my stint as the wine man on that paper (on the fashion pages). And in the evening it was André's birthday dinner at the Savoy, where the menu was Consommé riche au Fumet des Pommes d'Amour, paillettes dorées au Chester, Quenelle de Saumon Neptune, Suprême de Volaille Favorite (Pommes Amandines, Brocoli Milanaise), Parfait Glacè Prâliné Savoy and Le Gâteau Anniversaire Café. And the wines La Riva Fino, Wiltinger Klosterberg 1959, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou 1952, Pol Roger White Foil, Bisquit Dubouché VSOP. What a history of change there is in that wine list: sherry, hock, claret, champagne ... it sounds like the 19th century. And I suppose it was.
My diary, alas, only gives me glimpses of that year. I can tell you what I gave my father for his birthday (stogies). I went to Bristol to see Harry Waugh and to Bordeaux to do a story on the chateaux for House & Garden - and met the Marquis de Lur-Saluces, the old-school grandee of Yquem. In September I went to New York (I was writing for American Vogue) and met yet another formidable lady, and André's sparring partner for many years, Jeanne Owen. There were, shall I say, political difficulties between the New York chapter of the Society and headquarters. I wish I could say that my visit did anything to reduce them.
Suddenly, on November 18, 1963, my diary notes "made Gen. Sec. of W&F. Soc." The entry for November 20 goes some way towards explaining the suddenness, or at least the date: "André S. to Australia, Canberra, Waterloo, 3:30". That for November 22 has a totally different resonance: "President Kennedy assassinated".
At this point, at least for a while, I wrote almost daily entries. They record a life among the fleshpots I can scarcely believe was mine. André had just moved the Society's office from Grosvenor Gardens, where he was the tenant of the Rev Marcus Morris and his National Magazine Company, to the offices of another well-wisher, George Rainbird, at 2 Hyde Park Place. Rainbird was a successful publisher; his books incorporated colour photography in ways that changed international coedition publishing. A few doors down from Marble Arch, 2 Hyde Park Place overlooks the Park; it's a dignified and leafy setting, and only ten minutes' walk from the Connaught Hotel, which began to play a surprisingly large part in my life.
André has often been described as having a peasant's instincts. He certainly knew how many postage stamps there were in the desk drawer. He counted them on each morning's visit to the office; he remembered each letter coming in and going out. How to reconcile this with my diary entries - "lunch Quaglino's", "lunch Ivy", "dinner Mirabelle", "lunch Trader Vic's" and, frequently, lunch or dinner Connaught - is a bit of a puzzle. At the age of 24 I was signing the bill at places I now visit at intervals of years. But then I was learning a rather odd kind of trade.
Before he disappeared to Australia André gave me some basic training in how to negotiate with a banqueting manager. They are not lessons you could apply today, when there are waiting lists at every restaurant you would want to go to. One lesson I vividly remember applied to a magnificent room at a hotel I will not name. A canny organizing secretary was well advised to sit in a strategic seat to keep an eye on the proceedings in a mirror. The mirror reflected the doorway behind the service screen, where waiters bring bottles in, and sometimes take them out....
André was away four months, travelling on from Australia to New Zealand, and home by sea. We had a Christmas dinner at the Ivy two weeks after he left, then dinners at Martinez, a Spanish restaurant famous for its tiled patio (we drank a 1933 Rioja and an 1830 Oloroso); at Quaglino's; at Trader Vic's - my special favourite - with Paul Masson's new "varietal" wines; and a Hungarian dinner at the Law Society, an odd arrangement in retrospect, but an exciting introduction to the beauty of Tokaji.
The happy pattern continued on André's return in March 1964. By this time Wine & Food was becoming more ambitious. We were publishing Philippe de Rothschild's poetry, translated by Christopher Fry; a sad goodbye to the bars of Les Halles as the market heart of Paris was demolished; more Elizabeth David; the first work of Alan Davidson, then a diplomat in North Africa, on Mediterranean seafood; Evelyn Waugh on champagne; a gourmet gardening series; even short stories; and of course André's epic account of what he ate and drank and with whom in the Antipodes.
Memorable Meals was still our equivalent of Jennifer's Diary; the spiritual heart of the magazine; the place where hospitality, generosity and occasionally plain vulgar ostentation were chronicled. Although one meal, and not the least memorable, consisted of bread and margarine and cocoa on the deck of a warship about to land troops in Italy. My most memorable meal at the time, (the competition was stiff) was a lunch at André's home in Sussex, Little Hedgecourt. He invited Elizabeth David and Jim Beard, America's food guru, a genial giant with Humpty Dumpty's figure and just as much hair. I collected Jim at his hotel in my Mini. I don't remember how we got him in and out of it, but I do remember his laughter. Lunch was in André's much-loved garden (gardening, after books, was his off-duty passion) and was an example of his creed of simplicity, not always observed in the Society's banquets. We ate a roast chicken and drank Château Lafite.
To André the acts of writing and editing were almost sacred. He loved printer's ink, as he said, almost as much as wine and would take rare books from the shelves of his amazing library in Evelyn Mansions to caress them with his huge hands. One day he showed me his one page of a Gutenberg Bible, the first European printing, which lived in a leather folio. The jet black precision of the impression was almost startling; its perfection strangely moving. "Printing was perfect at the start," André said. "It has never been better than this."
Back from Australia and New Zealand he was working on the Wines, Vineyards and Vignerons of Australia, to be published in 1966; an incredibly far-sighted project, when Australian wines beyond the Invalid Port variety were still unknown in Britain. He instigated the 100-guinea André Simon Award for the literature of gastronomy in February 1965 at the Fanmaker's Hall and awarded it to Cyril Ray for The Compleat Imbiber Number 7. Then he set off for a tour of South Africa. "11:20, Waterloo. ALS to Pretoria Castle".
My life was also changing. I was writing more for American magazines; I had met my future wife, Judy Grinling (at vintage time 1964, at Château Loudenne in the Médoc); and I was aiming to write a book. To my future father-in-law's alarm I proposed to his daughter and resigned my job at Condé Nast - which meant the editorship of Wine & Food - in the same month.
I continued to work on the Society's affairs, organizing dinners, but André and Harry Yoxall had already lined up my two successors: John Hoare as General Secretary and Julian Jeffs as Editor. My diary records little let-up in the browsing and sluicing; visits to Claridge's, Le Caprice, the Ecu de France, Wolfe's (the mould-breaking restaurant started by David Wolfe) continue. So do tastings at shippers' offices, hotels and livery halls. And, I'm happy to see, almost daily riding from livery stables in Hyde Park. Would my liver have stood the strain without? How did André's?
I stepped down officially from the Society's affairs on June 21, 1965, when Judy wrote in my diary "André to lunch. What shall we give him?" I wish I had recorded the answer, but I suspect it was Judy's favourite, poulet à l'estragon. I was signed up to write my first book, Wine, and we set off together to do the research all over Europe. The total immersion it entailed kept me away from the Society, though not from occasional lunches and dinners with André. When our first daughter, Lucy, was born, and duly taken to Little Hedgecourt for inspection, André gave her a basket of pullet's eggs; one for each week of her just-beginning life.
And there was a working sequel, too. In 1967 André confessed he dreaded the coming winter. His sight was too poor to read any more - and just as bad he could no longer see the food on his plate. I suggested he look for local help with a Dictaphone and a typist to dictate a fresh batch of memoirs. (His first, By Request, came out when he was only 80). A week or two later I called to ask about progress. "I can't manage the new-fangled machine," he said, "but, hallelujah, I find I can still type on my old machine." It certainly was old: a stand-up model from the 1920s. And it had a problem: when the carriage came to the end of the line the bell didn't ring. I asked to see the already plump manuscript, only to find that the last word or two of each line had been typed on the roller rather than the paper.
But the memoirs were marvellous; much better, in my view, than By Request. His memory, though spasmodic, was in overdrive. He asked me to help with what came out, in 1969, as In the Twilight, with the fine paper and binding that George Rainbird had promised, and André richly deserved.
© Hugh Johnson, 2003